Steve Alford pulled freshman forward TJ Leaf out with a little under four minutes left in Wednesday’s 102-62 win over UC Santa Barbara. About thirty seconds later, he subbed out freshman guard Lonzo Ball.
The UCLA coach’s decision – to sit his two stars out for the final minutes of a 40-point blowout – wouldn’t be notable except for the fact that Leaf and Ball happened to each be just a few assists away from a triple-double.
It’s a feat that only four players in program history have ever accomplished, but Alford didn’t even take it into consideration.
“I’d like to say we pay attention to that, but we don’t,” Alford said. “It all centers around our guys – and they’re selfless.”
Selflessness was the word of the night throughout Alford’s postgame presser.
Of all of Leaf’s spectacular moments – the frosh put up 25 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists – Alford was most enamored with a sequence in the first half that showcased the Bruins’ unselfish brand of basketball.
Sophomore guard Aaron Holiday had poked the ball away in the backcourt, then hustled to save it from going out of bounds and fired a pass to Leaf near the half-court line.
Leaf took a couple dribbles down the court, the defense out of position, then fired the ball to Holiday open in the corner. Holiday missed the three, but after Ball’s failed putback attempt, Leaf grabbed the rebound and had another chance to score in the paint.
Once again, he found Holiday, who shot-faked his defender, drove into the paint and hit a spinning jumper.
“That’s the kind of selfless plays that this team is starting to just create that’s fun,” said Steve Alford. “It’s fun to watch, it’s obviously fun to coach, and TJ has a lot to do with that.”
That same selflessness, Alford said, is why he gave no consideration to leaving Leaf or Ball – who recorded 13 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists – in to chase a statistical milestone.
“I just play,” Ball said. “It’s kind of crazy, two guys could have got (triple-doubles) but all we care about is winning.”
That selflessness is also how the Bruins, who entered the game leading the country by far with 23.9 assists per game, increased that average with a 27-assist performance against the Gauchos. They now average 24.2 per game, three more than the next highest mark.
“We were just trying to play unselfish basketball – that’s what we do,” Leaf said. “We like to move the ball, every one of us.”
Eight different Bruins generated assists Wednesday. Holiday, whose acceptance of and performance in his new role as the team’s sixth man is indicative of the team’s unselfish mindset, recorded six of his own.
He and freshman forward Ike Anigbogu continued to provide a noticeable spark off the bench, especially with their energy and defensive abilities. Anigbogu blocked four shots and Holiday tallied four steals.
“Both Ike and Aaron’s skillsets are equal to what we have in the starting lineup, “Alford said. “So if they can bring that energy, it really helps.”
Holiday also turned in a 9-for-9 performance on free throws, an improvement over the 73.3 percent shooting that had motivated him to put in extra work at the line in recent days, according to Alford.
“I just locked in more,” Holiday said. “I stayed with my routine a lot more this game, and that really helped me.”
With a 12-for-34 performance from behind the arc Wednesday, the Bruins fell to second in the nation in three-point shooting at 45.3 percent. With the 12 triples, though, UCLA earned its fans free Chick-fil-A sandwiches – coupons are distributed if the team makes 10 threes at home – for the fifth time this season. Overall, the Bruins have made at least 10 threes in eight of their 11 games.
Leaf and Ball’s near-triple-doubles were just the latest remarkable performance for the pair of first-years. They now rank sixth and seventh in the nation, respectively, in win shares, per Sports Reference. No other freshmen rank higher.